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2008 Dodge Caliber Test Drive Review

Picture of 2008 Dodge Caliber

The Dodge Caliber has an attractive price tag, but it falls short elsewhere.

5.8 /10
Overall Score

The Caliber joined Dodge’s lineup last year as a practical successor to the Neon and started winning a few hearts with its reasonable price tag and comfortable interior. Optional all-wheel-drive makes the Caliber a viable crossover alternative for buyers living in places where the weather gets nasty, but the specs may not be enough.

Useful hatchbacks are a rare breed on the market today, as many buyers are opting for SUVs from Jeep, Hyundai, and Honda, so the Caliber enjoys somewhat limited competition. The Toyota Matrix and Nissan Versa are closest to going toe-to-toe with the Caliber, but it’s the Toyota that dominates the segment. The Caliber is less refined and less efficient than the Matrix, but the price will be much better for many buyers’ budgets.

Look and Feel

7/ 10

If you’re a fan of Dodge’s “crosshairs” grille, you’ll be a fan of the Caliber. It’s most prominent feature is that grille, which is flanked by large headlights and bulging fender flares. Higher trims get foglights and light chrome trim, but it all boils down to that face. In true hatchback fashion, the Caliber’s roof rises gently before swooping down to accommodate the cargo hold under the rear hatch.

Though the Caliber’s grille is its most prominent feature, the rear end is definitely its busiest. The number of shapes and angles is a little much at times, and large taillights make what would be a large cargo opening much smaller than it should be. A high-mounted rear window is wide, but too narrow to be truly useful, and is further obstructed by a rear wiper blade.

The story inside is much the same, as there’s not much to note, other than dated electronics and flat but supportive seats. All of the Caliber’s controls are tucked neatly into the center stack, and the rest of the cabin is remarkably devoid of almost anything else.

Performance

6/ 10

Dodge would love for you to believe that all versions of the Caliber are sporty and fun, but those sensations are limited to the SRT4 trim with a much hotter powertrain than the other models.

Base trims that come with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission provide both the most efficient and engaging driving experience. The least powerful engine in the Caliber lineup benefits from a crisp and precise-feeling gearbox, while also delivering more than decent fuel economy.

The SRT4, with its 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, can move the Caliber to 60 mph from a standstill in just six seconds. Finding the right gear to deliver the sweet spot of power is tricky, as the engine runs out of juice at higher RPMs, and there’s a bit of lag on the low end.

The Caliber’s ride is comfortable and reassuring, but there’s more body roll in the corners and very noticeable torque steer under hard acceleration, a relatively common issue with front-wheel-drive cars.

The Dodge is about as good as the Toyota Matrix but feels much less “put together” than the Mazda3. The SRT4 is quite a bit better in the corners, but the Caliber’s front-centered weight distribution means there will be understeer, and the torque steer issue is even more pronounced with the hefty increase in power.

Fuel economy lands at 24/29/26 mpg city/highway/combined for models with the 1.8-liter engine and manual transmission.

Caliber models with the 2.0-liter engine are rated at 23/27/24 mpg city/highway/combined, and the 2.4-liter engine paired with a manual gearbox delivers 23/29/25 mpg. The CVT changes those numbers to 21/25/23 mpg, while all-wheel drive decreases them further to 21/24/22 mpg.

The SRT4, with its 2.4-liter engine and six-speed manual gearbox, is rated at 19/27/22 mpg.

Form and Function

6/ 10

If you’re looking for a luxury vehicle with exciting styling, keep looking. The Caliber is useful, functional, and comfortable, but don’t expect much more than the bare necessities, which means nice cloth seats but not much else. Everything, down to the gauges, is designed for practicality, placing function over form. The front seats are wide and flat, but oddly supportive, and all controls are close at hand for the driver. Since all of the Caliber’s buttons are centered in one place on the dash, there is little confusion and hunting for the right control. The SRT4’s seats have much more bolstering and cloth inserts that help hold passengers in place.

The Caliber’s rear seat is smaller than it looks and lacks legroom. Headroom is decent but fails to match the Toyota Matrix by about an inch. Cargo space is where the Caliber picks up some of the points it lost in the back seat. With the 60/40 rear seat folded down, there’s 48 cubic feet of space in the cargo area, which is almost as much as a small wagon but still falls short of the Matrix.

Tech Level

5/ 10

Remember when we said the Caliber comes only with the basics? This is where that’s going to be most apparent. The base SE comes with an AM/FM/CD stereo, four speakers, and an auxiliary input. That’s it. No air conditioning or power windows come standard. MP3 capability and a six-disc changer can be added, as can SiriusXM satellite radio.

Stepping up one level opens up a much longer list of standard features. Satellite radio comes standard, as does power windows, door locks, and yes – even air conditioning. The R/T comes with a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system and two articulating rear gate speakers. Navigation is optional, which comes with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, and buyers can even add a refrigerated glove box that can fit a few bottles of water.

Safety

5/ 10

As basic as it is, the Caliber performed decently in crash testing. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the car Good ratings in moderate front overlap crashworthiness, Marginal for side impacts and seats/head restraints, and Acceptable for roof strength. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rated the Caliber five stars in front crash testing.

Driver and passenger airbags are standard, as are anti-lock brakes.

Cost-Effectiveness

6/ 10

The Dodge Caliber SE’s sub-$14,000 base MSRP doesn’t buy much in the way of niceties, but there’s a large price spread from there to the range-topping SRT4 trim at around $23,000. In between, buyers will have to shell out extra cash to add missing convenience and comfort features at nearly every step. The R/T trim brings in some of the functionality that the SXT trim misses, but even then, navigation and other features have to be added as optional equipment. Gas mileage is decent, but that might not be enough to attract new car buyers wanting a little “extra” to go with their small car.

Buyers wanting a sportier ride will be better served by the Kia Spectra5, which is a great car and also tops out at a more reasonable $19,000, but the true “best car” in this segment is the Toyota Matrix. It’s slightly more expensive, starting at just over $16,000, but there’s more room and more standard features than either the Caliber or the Kia. If all-wheel drive is a requirement, there are better offerings from Subaru, and even some models from Volkswagen can be more exciting for not much more money.

Updated

Chris is an automotive journalist covering new vehicle reveals, news, and technology. He loves digging into the details to tell entertaining and informative stories.

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